WASHINGTON — There is a growing consensus among defense leaders to send a substantial contingent Marines to Afghanistan, probably beginning next spring, while dramatically reducing their presence in western Iraq, the top Marine general told The Associated Press on Monday.
Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview that Marine units tentatively scheduled to go to Iraq next spring are already incorporating some training for Afghanistan into their preparations.
He said he has had discussions with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and believes the Pentagon chief "would not object to the idea of a fairly strategic shift of focus of Marines from Iraq to Afghanistan."
"I don't want to put words in his mouth," said Conway, who has made no secret of his belief that Marines could be put to better use fighting in Afghanistan than their current peacekeeping, nation-building mission in Iraq. Gates understands, he said, "my public stance on the fact that we can be better used elsewhere. And he certainly hasn't told me to pipe down. So I like to think he understands the logic of it."
At the same time, Conway said that when the 22,000 Marines in Iraq's Anbar province leave, he believes they should all go, and not leave training teams behind.
More than a year ago, when early discussions of sending more Marines to Afghanistan became public, Gates signaled opposition to the idea, preferring to maintain the concentration on Iraq.
At that time, Conway said that Gates and others believed the timing wasn't right to shift the Marines out of Anbar.
On Monday, however, Conway took a decidedly different tone.
"I just see that people have, over time, understood we don't want to take over Afghanistan, such as was rumored when we first started talking about a shift of forces," Conway said. Instead, he said officials now realize that the Marines are an expeditionary fighting force that is better suited to the Afghanistan battle.